The world's most famous ballet-related dessert was called the pavlova because the lightness of its meringue base was intended to invoke and honour the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova's trademark dying swan performance. However, it could just as accurately been called the palaver. For most of the 80-odd years since its creation, Australians and New Zealanders have been locked in, at times, bitter debate about who invented it.
According to the Australians, the Perth chef Bert Sachse spent a month experimenting with the recipe in 1935 at the behest of his managers at the Esplanade Hotel. The end result was so light that it was compared to and then named after the ballerina, who wowed the West Australian capital in 1929. (Sadly, Pavlova died two years later, after refusing treatment for pleurisy because she was told it might cost her the ability to dance.)
But when the 15,000 or so New Zealanders living in the UAE celebrate their national holiday of Waitangi Day, on Saturday, they can tuck into the dessert - topped kiwi fruit, of course - and silently thank a professor of anthropology at Otago University who has applied full academic rigour to settle the debate in their favour once and for all. Professor Helen Leach, now retired, began collecting early New Zealand cookbooks when she was a cash-strapped newlywed, but over time that hobby and her profession coalesced into the field of culinary anthropology.
Apparently, the field was not initially taken very seriously in academic circles. "But the methods developed for analysing the history of recipes is straight out of archaeology," she explains. "Nobody had ever thought of applying it [to food] before. Recipes are like artefacts, except we eat the artefacts and all that's preserved are the recipes." "I've always treated eating academically. I had a long involvement with archaeology relating to horticulture and I wrote my PhD on Maori kitchen gardens: 1,000 Years of Gardening in New Zealand. I've also written several books on the anthropology of European gardening style.
"I knew the only way I was going to persuade people that this was a serious investigation was to write an academic book. I put in very, very extensive footnotes and I entered more than 600 recipes on a spreadsheet. It was already clear that the meringue, a concoction of whipped egg whites and sugar, had been around for a long time, having first appeared in a cookbook in 1692 and named after its disputed point of origin, the Swiss town of Meiringen."
Leach's investigations unearthed the first dish named after Pavlova had emerged in New Zealand in 1926, the year she toured the country as part of a world tour that also included Australia, but it was a four-coloured jelly concoction invented by the Davis Gelatine company. The first recognisable pavlova features in a 1928 cookbook from New Zealand, but involves a series of small meringues. The classic pavlova as it is now known - the size of a dinner plate and crisp on the outside but spongy on the inside, topped with cream and fruit - emerged the following year.
All of this came six years before the purported date of Burt Sachse's creation and 11 years before the first mention of a pavlova in an Australian cookbook. Leach turned her research into a 60,000-word book, The Pavlova Story: A Slice of New Zealand's Culinary History, which all but the most nationalistic Aussies have conceded gives their Kiwi cousins bragging rights over the dish's provenance. Even the last-ditch Australian claim that Sachse's recipe was the first to include a topping of passion fruit falls at the feet of Leach's research: among the 20 recipes she found in New Zealand cookbooks before the pavlova's appearance in Australia is one that includes a passion fruit topping.
She describes Sachse's efforts as "parallel evolution" rather than outright purloining. The pavlovas that will grace the table at the Waitangi Day gala at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club on Saturday and those which were served at the Australia Day celebrations last month are all different parts of the same happy meringue-dessert family. Since her book was published early in 2008, nothing has yet emerged to challenge the claim of Kiwi provenance, although the story might still change further because of the haphazard way in which early cookbooks, often compilations for church fund-raising, were treated.
"For many years, many libraries wouldn't collect them, often because they were undated or falling apart or rotten because people spilt things on them when they cooked with them," Leach says. "They're appreciated now. I have 1,600 to date and I've got another 200 to catalogue. A lot of people give them to me because they know they'll go to the library. I've been collecting them for over 30 years. Initially I never thought I might just use them."